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Judas Priest Metal Masters

Issue #5

Gearwise, Priest’s guitar duo were solidwall-of-Marshall users until relatively recently, when Tipton switched to the fastgrowing German amp manufacturer, Engl. Tipton is careful to say that he hasn’t stopped using Marshall (and indeed he does still have Marshal in his rig) but his main sound now is from an Engl - as is Faulkner’s, who has followed suit.
Gary Cooper

Judas Priest have survived at the top of the Heavy Metal league since the 1970s - now on their ‘farewell’ Epitaph world tour, Andy James met guitarists Glenn Tipton and new boy Richie Faulkner for a look at how the famous twin guitars were working with a new man on board.  Meanwhile, Gary Cooper considers the band’s history and its impact on the genre.

Heavy Metal has never been fashionable with the Press in Judas Priest’s home country, the UK. Back when the band started, in the early 1970s, even though Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin had proved heavy Rock had more international audience appeal than almost any other genre, slightly younger bands, like Judas Priest, Budgie and UFO had trouble getting anything more welcoming than a sneer from the, then, hugely powerful music press or the all-powerful BBC.

To be honest, the media aren’t a lot friendlier today but Metal has transcended the  mainstream Press and even if the right-on pundits love to wrinkle their noses, Metal bands have nothing to prove. They sell out tours around the world, CD sales are numbered in the millions and fans vote with their wallets for what they like – not what critics tell them is ‘cool’.

But this media negativity, plus a deal with a record company with the good taste to sign them but not enough money to promote their records, meant that Priest had a lousy few years at the start. Ignored by the media, unable to afford decent equipment, sufficient recording time, competent managers or good producers, they were on the edge of folding when in 1977 they jumped ship, left their label, released Sin After Sin on CBS, switched management and began a career which has seen them become one of the stalwarts of British Heavy Metal.

If that sounds like a rags to riches story, it probably was, but there are echoes of another ancient tale too, because in that turnaround in fortune, Priest seemed to have signed a Faustian pact. They became more successful than anyone could have imagined but something unique seemed to disappear from their music.  As they got deeper into the US market, producing hugely successful albums like British Steel (decent enough, heads down early Metal, but a long way from the thoughtful, almost operatic, material the band had once been edging closer to) the ‘progressive’ essence seemed to get weaker and weaker. Clearly it didn’t vanish altogether, though, as their last studio album, Nostradamus, bravely risked yet more ‘Spinal Tap - Stonehenge’ sneers from some segments of the media. But you can’t help wondering what Priest might have turned into if they hadn’t chased the playlists - however successful - in their Breaking The Law period.

Material aside, two elements have remained consistent throughout the band’s 40 year career - the most important (despite the short period during which he went solo) being singer Rob Halford’s astonishing vocal prowess. Few in Rock have approached his range, power, or sheer class and if the gay biker iconography got a bit tiresome, if you just closed your eyes and listened, here was a singer the equal of any of the greats like Robert Plant or Ian Gillan.

The other pillar was the use of twin lead guitars - for most of the history of the band, until  this current tour in fact, comprising Glenn Tipton and the band’s co-founder (with bassist Ian Hill), K.K. Downing.

Priest’s use of twin guitars wasn’t new.  Wishbone Ash had perfected the idea long before (and with, frankly, far better playing) and Thin Lizzy had also used the two guitar line-up successfully, but what Priest did was weld the idea into Metal. Priest played faster than most of the other bands of the era and they sounded far more raw - edgier.

Working together, Tipton and Downing may not have invented any techniques or created an instantly recognisable guitar style or sound, but they set a pattern that countless bands since have learned from - and sometimes downright copied. 

Judas Priest’s legacy is unquestionable. A host of bands appeared in the 1980s - dubbed the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – led by Priest and including Iron Maiden, Saxon and, importantly Venom, and this led directly to the next generation of Metal from the USA - bands like Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica. It’s a well and honourably acknowledged debt, too, with tips of the hat to Priest from Slayer, who covered Dissident Aggression, and Anthrax, who actually named a song after them. So while MTV may have been stretching things a bit when it voted Priest the second greatest Metal band after Black Sabbath, the fact is that their fast-paced playing and huge appeal to massive crowds, radiofriendly music, SM/Bondage fashion styles and their sheer determination to keep the flame alive when Metal was falling off the radar at times, certainly makes them one of Metal’s most influential outfits.

Most bands would have folded if one half of their essential guitar duo had announced he was quitting more or less on the eve of a world tour, but Priest’s determination saw them through the trauma. Why K.K. Downing quit the band is not being revealed, other than through the usual vague talk of ‘musical and management’ disagreements, but the fact is that his departure, far from stalling the ‘Epitaph’ world tour, seems almost to have invigorated it. Richie Faulkner, a more or less unknown Londoner, was drafted in as Downing’s replacement (the word ‘permanent’ hasn’t been used) and is receiving rave reviews for his contribution to the band’s sound on what is supposed to be their farewell, scheduled to roll on until 2012.

Gearwise, Priest’s guitar duo were solidwall-of-Marshall users until relatively recently, when Tipton switched to the fastgrowing German amp manufacturer, Engl. Tipton is careful to say that he hasn’t stopped using Marshall (and indeed he does still have Marshal in his rig) but his main sound now is from an Engl - as is Faulkner’s, who has followed suit. Interestingly, another of Birmingham’s founders of heavy metal guitar, Tony Iommi, has also moved to Engl in recent years (in his case abandoning an almost career-long association with fellow Brummies, Laney), so it’s clear Engl has something the Metal guys really like. For the record, Tipton is using a modified Engl Invader, while Faulkner’s choice of weapon is an Engl  Powerball.

For guitars, Faulkner is primarily a Gibson man, favouring a stunning white Les Paul, though he’s occasionally seen wielding an SG or a V, but Tipton, with many years behind him, has a more eclectic tastes - for all that he says he is not a collector.

For many years, Tipton’s main guitar was a 1961 Fender Stratocaster, though in the early days, both he and Downing were often seen with Gibson SGs. That choice underwent a major change when Tipton met the genius behind Hamer’s golden era in the 1970s and ‘80s, Jol Dantzig.  Dantzig worked on a series of guitars for both Priest guitarists and even though Hamer has now been swallowed, first by US giant Kaman and more recently by Fender and seems to have lost its way, Tipton remains faithful to his custom Hamers. However, he also has quite a selection of guitars and is one of those players happy to feature them on his personal website and explain what he uses and why.

You may not listen to a Judas Priest guitar solo and immediately identify its source but the fact remains that Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing had a massive influence on what we call Heavy Metal guitar and that Richie Faulkner, judging from the early reports of the Epitaph tour, has picked up the torch with gusto. This is the band, without which you could make a good claim for there being no Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax as we know them today - let alone having sold a reputed 50 million albums, worldwide. Not bad for a band written-off by the sneering British music press back in the 1970s, and ignored by UK broadcasters, who, at the time, thought what it called ‘pub Rock’ was going to take over the world!

Issue 5
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